If you were a grape, what kind do you think you'd be: Charmaine Chardonnay, Girty Gewürz, Micky Merlot or a tongue-tied and confused Cserszegi Fuszeres? Every grape has its own distinct identity, and it's that "varietal" persona that helps us to work out the flavour and style of the wine that it will produce. Like their human counterparts, some grapes are stars, others boring, some have stronger aromas and characters than others and some interact better with the environment in which they're brought up.

In the film Sideways, Paul Giamatti's character is obsessed with pinot noir, whose thin-skinned, temperamental character mirrors his own neurotic obsessions. Fussy, but charming when it tries, pinot noir responds only to the overtures of people who'll lavish attention on it. It's doubly infuriating because when it's good, all that kissing of frogs along the way is just about worth the effort. The gamey, strawberryish style of the 2006 Domaine Maillard Chorey-lès Beaune, £14.99, Waitrose, is one expression of pinot, the perfume and vibrant raspberries of the 2007 Saddleback Central Otago Pinot Noir, £14.99, Marks & Spencer, another.

Lower in the burgundian pecking order, gamay, when on form, is an unpretentious, light-hearted sort of a grape that just wants to have fun, so try the summer-pudding delights of Sainsbury's 2006 Taste the Difference Beaujolais-Villages, £5.99. Syrah, aka shiraz, is prolific and ubiquitous; it can be appealing when young, like Gabriel Meffre's blackberryish 2007 La Chasse du Pape Syrah, £5.49, Waitrose, or more complex and rounded with age like the 2003 Crozes Hermitage L'Esprit du Fief, £12.99, Sainsbury's.

Cabernet sauvignon is a late developer, but unlike pinot noir and merlot, thick-skinned enough to be accommodating just about wherever it ends up. The classic, oak-veneered, cassis-centred 2005 Château Cambon La Pelouse, £17.99, Waitrose, young now, is a case in point. Merlot is a member of the cabernet family, a trickier customer and thinner-skinned than you'd imagine; it's best in a fine Pomerol like the stylish, cedary 2005 Château Moulinet, £27.50, Waitrose.

Chardonnay is as popular as a cheerleader and often as bland, but lavish a bit of TLC on it, allow it a jacuzzi in oak barrels, and it will adapt to become full-bodied and buttery like the 2006 Bourgogne Chardonnay, £7.99, Marks & Spencer, or elegantly stylish like the classic, minerally 2006 Jean Marc Brocard Chablis 1er cru Quintessence, £15.99, Tesco.

Sauvignon can be restrained, or assertive and shrill and loves the cold. In quieter form, it is stylish and flinty, as in 2007 Sainsbury's Taste the Difference Pouilly Fumé, £9.99, but its New World counterpart stands out in a crowd, with an odour and body many find irresistible. Try the aromatic, passion-fruity 2007 Jackson Estate Sauvignon Blanc, £9.99, Waitrose. Gewürztraminer wears a strong scent and can overwhelm, but feed it Asian food, and a wine like the rose-scented, lychee-like 2007 Cono Sur Vision Gewürztraminer 'Block Las Colmenas', £7.49, Majestic, will come into its own.

Riesling has a split personality. It can be flabby and sentimentally sugary, but when it's good, it's elegant and dry. It loves cool weather and dizzy heights and in its myriad personality traits, it can show a steely resolve. The 2006 O'Leary Walker from Australia's Clare Valley, £8.99, Waitrose, with its richly fruited, lime-citrus zip, shows dry riesling's attributes at their best. And the boring grapes? The air-headed airén, plain pinot grigio and tedious trebbiano will do. There's always dull doradillo, of course – we all know one of those.